Janet Ayers deeply cares about the community in which she lives. As president of The Ayers Foundation, established in 1999, she works to improve the quality of life for Tennesseans through financial support for college scholarships, medical services for children, research into pre-cancer detection and diagnosis, continuing education for teachers and other charitable donations and grants. Another passion of Janet and her husband, Jim Ayers, is supporting Tennessee artists. Together, they have amassed an impressive art collection that can be seen hanging on the walls of their home and of FirstBank, of which Jim was the sole shareholder until he took the bank public last year. Many of these works can also be found in their book, The Art of Community: Janet and Jim Ayers’ Collection of Tennessee Art. We are honored to introduce Janet Ayers as today’s FACE of Nashville.
Explain your career path.
When I began college, my major was pre-med, but I quickly changed majors to healthcare administration because I learned pre-med and my college social life did not mesh well. In order to determine where I would complete my internship for healthcare administration, I had several volunteer jobs while in college, ranging from volunteering at the First Tennessee development district, providing transportation for those who may have had too much to drink and needed a ride home (my college life was way before Uber and there were very few taxis), to providing activities on Saturdays at a nursing home. I loved my time at the nursing home, so I interned at a continuing care retirement community, became a licensed nursing home administrator and became a nursing home administrator after college graduation at the age of 23.
Why did you decide to move to Nashville?
I spent a great deal of time in Nashville because of my career in long-term care. I was very involved with the nursing home trade association as well as legislative and regulatory issues that affected long-term care. Nashville was and is the hub for healthcare. At that time, Jim was also involved in the nursing home business. When we married in 2006, Nashville made sense as a home base because of Jim’s business interests here. Also, I had a 16-year-old daughter and felt Nashville was the best place for Katie to complete high school.
The Ayers Foundation has provided more than 4,200 educational scholarships since 1999. Can you explain why this is an important initiative and how it has changed students’ lives in Tennessee?
Our Ayers Foundation Scholars program provides full-time counselors at the schools we serve. These counselors are paid through the foundation, but their offices are located in the schools. The counselors are truly the life line of our scholarship program. When our program began, we were in one high school. We are now serving five high schools representing each grand division of Tennessee, which includes East, Middle and West. When the program started, less than 30 percent of the graduating seniors were attending a post-secondary institution. Now we have almost 90 percent of our students attending post-secondary institutions, and more importantly, those students are remaining and completing their chosen programs, all the way from technical school to a four-year university.
On average, we have approximately 1,200 students at any given time in post-secondary education and over 2,500 high school students being mentored by our counselors. Everywhere we go, we run into students who say it was the Ayers Scholars program that allowed them to complete their education and begin a career. We know of no better way to change communities than through higher education.
Who are your mentors, and how did they positively affect your life?
Personally, my mentors are my mom and my grandmothers. I come from a long line of strong, educated, giving women. Professionally, Linda Jennings Estes hired me straight out of college (at the age of 23) as an administrator of a nursing home in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Linda taught me that high quality and attention to detail – and excellent customer service – drives a positive bottom line. She allowed me to learn from my mistakes without being critical but, rather, supportive. She helped me build my confidence in order to thrive in my chosen career of long-term care. What I learned from my mom, my grandmothers and Linda still carries me through all the different roles I now have.
Can you think of a piece of advice you have been given and why it resonated with you?
The best advice came from my grandmother when I first began my career as a nursing home administrator. She said, “Whatever you do, Janet, do not put a party hat on your patients.” In essence, treat everyone with respect! The other piece of advice was what my parents taught me — that we have a responsibility to give back to our communities.
When you think of something in your life you are most proud of, what is it?
My daughter. She is strong, independent, resilient and compassionate. My nursing home career and the loving quality of care that was delivered to each patient. My current role as the president of our foundation, watching the lives of our students change for the better – one student at a time, one degree at a time — and watching the light bulb turn on as the world is opened up to each of them.
You and your husband have amassed an impressive collection of art by Tennessee artists. Can you tell our readers what your inspiration was to do this and why this is important to you?
We are committed to our communities where we have homes and businesses. We are small-town, rural Tennesseans, and we are proud of our heritage. We felt that in order to support our communities, the best way to capture the spirit of Tennessee (where our nursing homes were located, our banks and the foundation are all located) was through local artists – from Mountain City to Memphis. The artists capture all of Tennessee that is sometimes hard to articulate but beautifully represented through different mediums.
What have you learned through your journey of getting to know Tennessee artists, and why do you think showcasing their work on the walls of FirstBank creates an important community initiative?
Our collection is titled “The Art of Community,” and I believe that this captures the essence of who we are as a bank as well as who we are as individuals. Our roots are deeply embedded in the communities where we work and play. Our artists are equally tied to their communities and to this state. When we honor these artists, we are also honoring the communities that support and inspire them.
If you could change one thing about Nashville, what would it be?
I believe I am working to change things here every day through the work I do, the commitments I make and the issues I take on. I think we would all agree that there are any number of issues that need attention. There is the issue of how to keep sight of our heritage and values in a community undergoing very swift growth. There is the issue of homelessness. There is the issue of education and making sure our young people are adequately prepared for the opportunities and challenges of the future.
What books are on your bedside table?
My Bible (well-worn); Smart Blonde: Dolly Parton by Stephen Miller; Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam, and I just purchased Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.
Is there something our readers would be surprised to know about you?
I can still do flips from my gymnastics days.
Do you have any irrational fears?
Heights! I live in a high-rise and am terrified of heights. I can look out, just not down.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Sunshine, high-heeled shoes and good champagne.
Thank you to Janet Ayers for spending time with us today. A special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos!
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